Do It Yourself, Korea
by Dan Abell, Seoul
In addition to their booming economy and futuristic technological advancements, South Korea has a restaurant culture packed with thrills for diners who don’t mind a little DIY.
Korean barbecue, for example, is fun, it’s social, and it’s my number one reason to visit Korea because you can’t get it most places in the States—especially the DIY style—and it just never gets old. During my visits to South Korea, it is only natural for a casual “foodie” like myself to kindle a fiery romance with marinated pork ribs sizzling on a tabletop grill, tongs and scissors in my hands.
Afterward, my traveling companions and I would usually go to a little place we called “Refrigerator Bar”, a self-serve beer-cooler establishment with oodles of imported beer at reasonable prices. This kind of bar is a rare, but extant concept in Korea. A visitor can drink what he/she wants, tally it up, and pay at the service counter only for what was consumed. Coming from a country where liquor laws are limiting, I find it liberating to go to a place like this and serve myself.
All this hype about Korean barbecue may not sound very impressive to, say, a vegetarian, or someone who just prefers not to eat very much meat, but there are many alternatives to eating meat in Korea. The most abundant alternatives to meat, and perhaps the most unique element to Korean dining, is the banchan—the small, yet bottomless, complimentary side dishes served with all meals in Korea. Varying from restaurant to restaurant and home to home, the banchan can often be the persuasive factor that establishes loyalty to one restaurant over another.
The staple banchan, kimchi—specifically kimchi made from cabbage—is world renowned for its method of preparation and the plethora of health benefits it is proclaimed to provide. It has become a trend, along with Korean cuisine in general, for restaurants and DIYers to make kimchi in the States and elsewhere outside Korea. I’ve tried many varieties here in the U.S. and few have come close to the kimchi that blew me away daily in Seoul. It’s a shame; someone please prove me wrong!
Now that you’re convinced, you’ve bought your tickets, and you’re heading to Korea to try its barbecue and kimchi, here are some simple tips for first-time visitors:
• Learn simple, polite phrases in Korean: your pleases, your thank you’s, and a few other basics in between, to bring a smile to your server or mini-mart attendant’s face. A little Korean goes a long way and many Koreans are easily impressed with the novelty of a foreigner knowing Korean, especially if you have a chance to get outside of Seoul. They will love you for your attempts!
• One thing to be prepared for is running into a few people. No, don’t worry, not your Uncle Leo or the annoying neighbor that lives down the hall, but literally running into people physically! Koreans are very comfortable with physical contact and have less concern for personal space than many western societies. You won’t get an ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ unless someone really cuts you off or collides into you with force. It’s rare (less rare in Seoul), but it does happen, just like anywhere else. When it happened to me, from time to time, I would typically get an actual ‘sorry’ in English. Seoul is very English -friendly!
• Another quirk pertaining to the restaurant culture is that patrons usually call out for the server to place an order. Koreans will either yell out what they want or say ‘yogiyo,’ the equivalent of saying ‘here please’ in English, and then place a large order, too long to shout out to the fleeting server. For a westerner, it may feel like you are being ignored, but really you just need to speak up. It’s not rude, I swear!
• Paying at the cash register is the common practice in Korea. It is polite to use two hands to give something to someone.